Queen Amidala is royalty, so why is she treated like a second class citizen? Michael O’Connor examines the saga’s most accomplished character and addresses the controversies that have sullied her good name.
Female politicians get a cold reception in this world, even fictional ones from galaxies far, far away apparently. Padme Amidala is a queen, a senator, and the mother of Luke and Leia, and she has some of the most devoted and passionate fans of any character in the saga. But there also seems to be something toxic in the air of late. As a new breed of Star Wars heroines enter the fray, a little bit of revisionist sniping has targeted Padme with claims that she should either be ignored or ridiculed as the wrong archetypal model for future galactic heroines. The popular refrain around Ms. Amidala is that she simply doesn’t represent the empowered female character that modern fans demand.
But here’s the thing: Queen Amidala has never been more relevant.
You don’t have to be a card carrying member of a feminist organization to recognize that women haven’t always received the best roles in Hollywood movies. Relegated to nagging wives or one-dimensional eye-candy, a vast majority of films, especially in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy, were engineered to appeal to the male power fantasy that saw women as secondary or sometimes tertiary members of their filmic worlds.
There were exceptions of course, but they were few and far between. One of those exceptions was the original Star Wars, in which three male characters free Princess Leia from her cell only to get pinned down by stormtrooper fire. Leia’s famous response–“This is some rescue! You came in here. Didn’t you have a plan for getting out?”–is bookended with her taking control of the situation and rescuing her rescuers.
But of course the original Star Wars trilogy was as much a product of its time as other films of its generation. Aside from Leia, the only other notable female character in the entire trilogy is Mon Mothma from Return of the Jedi, and she still has fewer lines and less screen time than a talking squid in an Admiral’s uniform.
Nowadays, women are far more visible on the silver screen, but it’s up for debate whether actresses in franchise fare are actually getting more well-rounded characters to portray. While a butt-kicking action heroine might seem like the antidote to decades of films depicting women as physical and emotional weaklings, there is something just as stereotypical and one-dimensional in that knee jerk role reversal.
Leia wasn’t just a badass who could shoot better than the boys; she was also a human character with layers of inner conflict and emotional nuance. Leia comforts Luke after the death of Obi-Wan, despite the fact that she just lost her entire world; she confesses her romantic affection for Han Solo first, even as he childishly retorts he knew it all along; and when she confronts Wicket the Ewok on Endor, she seeks to make peace with the native rather than brandish a weapon.
The point is, female characters in films don’t just have to be women actresses playing male character roles. Femininity, maternalism, affection and gentleness are traits to cherish and celebrate in our world and needn’t result in negative scoring on the chart of aspirational female figures.
A Renaissance Woman
Padme Amidala is exactly the kind of multi-faceted female role fans should be celebrating rather than attacking. In the whole of the Star Wars saga, there is no character with a better resumé; Padme is truly a renaissance woman. She’s royalty, a politician, war leader, diplomat, pilot, and yes, she’s also a wife and a mother. Heck, she even rules a world that in its architecture, fashion, art, and beauty is the planetary embodiment of the actual real-life Renaissance.
On the scale of strong women in films, Padme ought to rank pretty high. It’s not just that she’s a strong character; it’s that she’s a strong character that is accomplished in so many areas. She’s the Star Wars equivalent of the career woman who’s more qualified than any man in the room.
As a ruler, she saves her planet from a Trade Federation invasion. As senator, she is the lead opposition against the Military Creation Act that Palpatine needs to cement his power. And as a warrior, she’s pulling off head shots on battle droids and kicking bloodthirsty creatures off her perch. She’s intelligent, emotionally mature, and empathetic. She seeks diplomatic solutions whenever possible and she can deliver a speech to rally a thousand systems’ senators to her cause; but as a last resort, she won’t shy away from aggressive negotiations; in fact, she’ll be right there on the front lines leading the charge.
Name another character–male or female–in the Star Wars saga as accomplished as Padme with such a plethora of skills. The farmboy? The smuggler? The parochial Jedi Master? None of them even come close.
The Duality of Amidala
In The Phantom Menace, Padme Amidala is trapped between two sides of her personality. As the Queen, she is cold and rigid, tough and genderless with her monotone speech pattern and the makeup and wardrobe that conceal her identity. She looks more like an ornate statue of power and privilege than a human female. But as the handmaiden in disguise, she is actually her truer self: inquisitive, curious, warm and empathetic.
As in Mark Twain’s The Prince and The Pauper, it’s only through living outside the royal trappings of her throne room that Amidala recognizes the reality of the galaxy and the privilege in which she’s been sheltered. Her interactions with lowly Jar Jar Binks and slave boy Anakin force her to recalibrate her preconceived notions about her home world and the larger galaxy; she sees how little people are ignored beneath the mighty machinery of the Galactic Senate and even the royal leadership of the Naboo government. And such exposure helps her become a better, more inclusive leader.
It’s telling that in the film’s final act, Amidala no longer conceals her identity beneath the heavy makeup and elaborate fashion of the Queen; in fact, a handmaiden disguised in her royal trappings provides a welcome distraction at a key moment in the conflict. Even after the battle is won and it is a time for celebrations, Amidala chooses to present herself as a hybrid blend of royalty and handmaiden. She is still regally costumed, but her humanity is visible. The makeup is a mere whisper on her face where it once concealed her features. And the often expressionless Queen now greets the bright new tomorrow with a thousand megawatt smile.
The Queen personage in The Phantom Menace is, in many respects, an act. It is also perhaps a sly commentary on our own world’s gender politics within the halls of power. In a patriarchal society, a population is accustomed to rulers who project physical strength, intimidation, and stubborn resilience. In men, these are often admirable qualities. But in women, there is often a disconnect; these traits fly in the face of traditional gender roles. It’s not that women can’t be dominating, intimidating or stubborn; it’s that when they are, the public hates them for it. Strong women are accepted as long as they are shooting a big gun or performing martial arts in a skimpy outfit, but when they stand up for what they believe in and doggedly pursue their passions, they are belittled, bullied and silenced.
While this is neither fair nor just, perhaps it offers an opportunity as well. Queen Amidala only gets so far in her stoic, rigid guise as the cold, domineering monarch of the planet Naboo. It is only when she sheds her disguise and ditches the patriarchal playbook that she finds success. As a matriarchal leader, her first order of business is restoring relations with the Gungans. She interrupts the phony Amidala whose emotionally distant delivery isn’t inspiring anyone and delivers a heartfelt plea that is the polar opposite of the masculine, chest-beating bravado that’s all too common in politics. Diplomacy, honesty, and humility bridge the gap between the human Naboo and the Gungans, not violence, arrogance or threats.
Padme is a role model to young girls (and boys) everywhere. Tough but tolerant, smart but warm, she’s the total package. But the best thing about her is that she can be all these things and still be a fully realized, well-rounded character with flaws and shortcomings. A perfect character is great as wish fulfillment, but lousy within the context of a legitimate narrative. The best characters have to struggle and learn, to change and adapt to become better versions of themselves. Female characters should be no different than male characters in this regard; it is human to err after all, and making female characters flawless only serves to make them less relatable and realistic.
Everyone has shortcomings, flaws, and foibles in Lucas’ six-film saga, and never more so than in the prequels. That’s the point of tragedy in the classical sense. Characters must make mistakes and dig their own figurative graves; mistakes are precisely the purpose of a cautionary tale. And yet as prequel trilogy characters go, Padme is still probably the least culpable of anyone in the trilogy; and that’s ironic, because she seems to bear the brunt of the criticism for the tragedy that ensues.
But really her only two mistakes are ousting Chancellor Valorum in Phantom and agreeing to a shotgun wedding and secret marriage with the emotionally unstable Anakin in Clones.
On the first point, it’s worth addressing that Amidala is, as Sidious accuses her, “young and naive” through no fault of her own. She’s in good company with everyone else who has been hoodwinked by the wily Senator. The fact that she can’t see through Palpatine’s lies and innuendo about Supreme Chancellor Valorum is largely because there’s some truth to his accusations. Valorum is too weak and blind to see that Palpatine has maneuvered the Senate to a standstill, divided in its loyalties to the corporate interests of the Trade Federation and populist sympathies towards worlds like Naboo affected by the Federation’s greed. In her place, with the urgency of an invaded home world and a governing body that refuses to act, I can’t say I wouldn’t make the same call. Could you?
While Padme’s second mistake may be more difficult to defend, I should point out that I’ve already covered this topic before in more depth. To summarize, I am not a Padme and Anakin shipper; rather, I believe that Padme’s decision to commit herself to Anakin is a tragic mistake and that the films take pains to demonstrate this couple’s inherent incompatibility. But that said, her decision is not inconsistent as some decry or evidence of Lucas attempting to tell a romantic story but failing as others insist; instead Padme’s commitment to Anakin is entirely logical to her character development.
Amidala is the conscience of the prequel trilogy and probably the only character who truly embodies the selfless creed that the Jedi purport to live by. She thinks only of others and devotes her life entirely to their service. She eschewed her chance at happiness with the artist Palo to become the Queen and after serving her two terms was convinced by her successor to serve as Senator on Naboo’s behalf. She has sacrificed her childhood, her romantic life, and her own safety to be a leader of her people; and when she sees Anakin at his weakest and most vulnerable, hopeless and lost after his mother’s death and his failure to rescue Obi-Wan, she selflessly comforts him and pledges her love.
She does love him in this moment, but not like Anakin loves her, and not in the classical romantic sense. He loves her selfishly, wanting her for himself; she loves him selflessly, because she knows how he feels about her. It is a compassionate love and while such sacrifice is ultimately self-destructive, her heart is in the right place… or at least until Anakin “breaks” it.
Of Broken Hearts and Diminished Parts
The biggest bantha in the room for any conversation surrounding Padme Amidala is her diminished role in Revenge of the Sith followed by her vague death. While there is plenty of Padme to be found in the deleted scenes for Sith where she conspires with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma to form a future Rebel Alliance against Palpatine, the final cut of the film left this subplot entirely excised. While the omission is a shame, it was also a necessary cut to keep the narrative flowing and keep the attention focused on Anakin as the protagonist.
What remains of Padme in Revenge may seem minimal compared to previous films, but it’s still integral to the story and the saga. She not only gets the best line of the trilogy when she exclaims “So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause,” she also demonstrates the strength and integrity of her character in her final scenes in the saga.
She refuses to abandon Anakin even when she sees him at his worst, raging and ranting with Sith eyes and taking out his anger on her larynx. But neither will she join him and his sick crusade, and that’s an important point to linger on. She is morally strong and independent enough to tell him that where he’s going, she can’t follow, that he has crossed a line and that her devotion to her own values and morality supersedes even her commitment to him.
But neither will she give up on trying to save him. The first thing she asks upon regaining consciousness from Anakin’s attack is “Is Anakin all right?” and her last words to Obi-Wan before her death are “There is good in him.” That actual death and its mechanics have already been discussed on this very website; but regardless of how it happens, the point is that her selflessness and his selfishness shine through in these scenes.
Padme’s stubborn refusal to lose all hope in the face of overwhelming despair and her steadfast loyalty to a man who has physically abused her is often used as evidence of her weakness as a character. And yet doesn’t Luke do the same thing in Return of the Jedi when he discards his weapon in the presence of the most powerful Sith in the galaxy and the abusive father who cut off his hand and kicked the crap out of him? How can Padme’s sacrifice be written off as weak, while Luke’s is bravery? They are the same thing. Luke is Padme’s child. Her spirit, her fearlessness and her loyalty live on in him.
Similarly, Qui-Gon is lauded for his prophetic wisdom that Anakin will bring balance to the Force, but Padme’s insistence that he can be saved doesn’t come from a dusty old tome in the Jedi Council archives. It is borne out of the fact that as she tells Anakin, he is “a good person”; she knows his heart, his weaknesses, his imperfections, his struggles, and even when she should be angry at him, she is convinced he can be redeemed. That is true wisdom right there.
The Case for Padme
There has probably never been a more difficult time to navigate the turbulent tides of gender politics in America. At its most crucial hour, the cause of feminism was dealt a crippling blow; but it has not slunk off into a corner to nurse itself quietly. Instead it found its voice: a passionate and unyielding spirit in the form of the Women’s Marches that took the world by storm.
Padme Amidala is a character for the times we live in. Her legacy is one of faith, loyalty, selflessness, honesty and stubbornness to stand up for deeply held beliefs and ideals. While it’s true that she perished and failed to stop the dark shroud that enveloped the galaxy, her legacy would live on, and that legacy would succeed where she had fallen short. Her death would galvanize Bail Organa and Mon Mothma to form a resistance against tyranny. And her spirit would be passed down to the next generation, her children. That spirit would not only cripple an Empire, it would vindicate her faith in their father.
Anakin warned her not to turn against him. He explained he was just acting in the best interests of the galaxy.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Power to the Prequels is an ongoing column that aims to critique and analyze the Star Wars prequels and demonstrate their worth as individual films and also as components of a larger saga. The goal is neither to blindly praise these films nor condemn them. Rather, the aim is to specifically and respectfully consider the artistic decisions made by director George Lucas and draw conclusions that may differ from the mainstream consensus.
The Case for Padme: All Hail the Queen!